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The WD Interview – Harald Gottschling & Philipp Haffmans, Eyewear Designers (part I)

January 13th, 2009 · No Comments · Berlin, Design & Fashion, The WD Interview

Let’s get one thing clear from the start. For all its creativity, Germany is not a typical breeding ground for entrepreneurs. To be successful internationally, you will have either been born into the cluster of old wealthy clans whose names are instantly recognised abroad, or you pack your bags and leave.

Mykita, the German eyewear company, is five years old. In a short time, it has established itself in an industry that is dominated by large corporations. It has won an armful of international design awards for its innovative screw-less hinge design and handmade stainless sheet steel frames. Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Bruce Willis are customers. The company (the name is a reference to the company’s first office space – a former nursery ‘Kindertagesstätte’ or Kita in German) was formed after its four key members left the previous incarnation ic!Berlin.

Mykita’s creative team – and two of its founders – are Harald Gottschling and Philipp Haffmans who embody the adage “opposite’s attract”; Gottschling, quiet, pensive and perhaps rather shy. Without being impolite, he gives the impression he would rather be at his desk designing than talking about himself. By contrast, Haffmans is outspoken, quick, and almost flamboyant. They clearly complement each other and are very personable, open and unfailingly enthusiastic and positive about what they are doing.

“Ten years ago everyone was preoccupied with computers and websites – no one thought about products since they are almost untouchable because they are produced by large companies,” says Harald Gottschling about Mykita’s beginning. “You can’t just create them by yourself.” At the time, their attitude towards production put them in a unique position and the development of new technologies opened a way to turn their design ideas into a cost-effective reality. “We reacted to these new technologies and had the opportunity to acquire some laser equipment quite cheaply. We are a child of this new time, since these new skills enabled us to mass-produce.”

Philipp Haffmans adds that at the time people thought it was crazy to go into industry: “We sailed very close to the wind. All the income we made was put straight back into the company and from there it developed slowly. We didn’t really like the idea of going to a bank to take out a loan. We all invested DM 2000 at the time.”

Part of this money went towards buying disused button manufacturing machines at flea markets. These machines were later adapted to bend the frames from the metal sheets. Explains Haffmans: “We used to call it the ‘Africa Machine Park’ and if you look at our factory today it is still the same. This approach was very much in the spirit of the Gründerzeit manufacturing and it is fair to say that these very small flexible machines have proved their worth. Automated production would have been a disadvantage.”

Both designers studied product design at the Universität der Künste (HdK) in Berlin – what attracted them to redesigning eyewear? “Personally, I was very frustrated with my design course,” replies Haffmans quickly. “It was the proverbial ivory tower – I was in Berlin just after the Wall came down and there was no manufacturing here. As a result the professors didn’t have contacts in industry.”

When talking about the lack commercial guidance and tutoring both have very passionate, albeit opposing ideas. “As a designer you get pushed into the street and it would have made sense to be more commercially aware. It sort of happened with other students who throughout the course came up with ideas and wondered how they could turn them into something more,” explains Gottschling. “But business studies was not a feature of the course. We studied concepts of product design and reality was far away.“

Haffmans interjects referring to the purist attitude of his teachers: “Money was bad, success was bad.”

Gottschling disagrees: “I wouldn’t see it that way. I was very happy not to be confronted with all these questions in my design course. That gave me the opportunity of sitting in my ivory tower to come up with crazy ideas and not focus on things that were or were not possible in manufacturing. From that point of view I feel that the design course at the HdK was very good.” Adds Haffmans: “Freedom is good, but I felt the course was too alienated from reality.”

But their dormant business sense got the better of them when they decided to enter a design competition where the prize was cash. Says Haffmans: “We thought, great you can always use money as a student.” Although they didn’t win, they made contacts in the eyewear industry that eventually led to a project designing frames.

The lack of commercial expertise had a devastating effect on their first venture. “It ended in a big crash in 2003 due to our naïveté,” they explain, both laughing. Gottschling says leaving their first company to start all over again had one good result: “We could do the whole thing much better.”

Despite the beating, both view the experience as positive. Gottschling says that they wouldn’t have been quite so daring if they had known what the consequences would have been: “We signed completely stupid contracts which we didn’t even read.” He adds: “We just wanted to bring the product to market, buy machines, make frames and sell them. We didn’t want to think about contracts and all that.”

Both designers agree that it was quite an intense period and they didn’t really have any time to pay attention to these details. Haffmans goes one step further: “And you didn’t really want to either.” He insists this attitude hasn’t changed. “To be honest, either there is trust or there isn’t. What use is the best contract if you don’t trust each other? Then you can forget the whole thing before it even starts,” he says emphatically. “If it all falls apart then we’ll crash and start again. The key is the human relationships and communication – they either work or they don’t.”

An attitude that is born out by the relaxed cheerful atmosphere in their large loft-style offices and factory in Berlin-Mitte, a borough near the Alexanderplatz and the city’s historic centre. Berlin has always been Germany’s most outrageous and talented child whose spirit could never be tamed no matter how many men in brown or grey suits passed through its recent history.

“Berlin doesn’t stand on etiquette. It’s not like Paris where there is a society into which you have to work your way into, with gilded invitation cards that say: ‘I am part of the scene’,” observes Haffmans. “All that doesn’t exist in Berlin. Here, you can run around any way you want – no one cares. And that is the great freedom of Berlin.”

Haffmans and Gottschling arrived in Berlin three years after the Wall came down in what was a great pioneering time. Rents were cheap. Their company was allocated a large space in what is now a prime location and as Haffmans says: “That wouldn’t be possible in London, New York or Paris.“

Both are matter of fact about their success of winning the prestigious 1998 Silmo d’Or. Says Haffmans: “We had developed a completely new technology and won over Philippe Starck. The following morning, Alain Mikli came to our stand to check out what we were doing. He said later that at the time the market was stagnant and there was nothing that really stood out. The sheet metal design was a benchmark – of course now it is common sense and a lot of manufacturers try and follow this idea.”

So with a long list of accolades for innovative design, are they under pressure to come up with the next best thing so they can hang on to this reputation? “We are permanently thinking about new ideas, but it has to be a good idea,” explains Gottschling. “We are not interested in launching something new onto the market for its own sake. We are not interested in construction-decoration where a product is decorated with a technology that ultimately doesn’t make any sense. We don’t want to do stuff like that. When we do launch something it has to have a lasting effect.”

They agree that they have learned a lot more about shapes over the past years. “At the beginning we were much more interested in the technology. Shape came much later,” says Gottschling. “What helped us with the success of Mykita was that we paid a lot more attention to the form. If you look around the office there are 10,000 different shapes and eventually one evolves. As a result that one is going to be highly selective.”

If there have been opportunities for criticism, Mykita has addressed them. The company could be accused of having a myopic point of view, producing predominantly metal frames for a design orientated male customer base. It is no coincidence that one of their most successful shops is located in Toulouse, one of the centres of the European aerospace industry. Haffmans acknowledges this, adding: “I think men are happy that they have got something they can talk about – like women and shoes. They can say: ‘I have a pair of glasses which is super and they work brilliantly’.”

In response, Mykita recently hired a female designer, Maria Gerace who previously worked for Tom Ford, and have started focusing more on acetate. “We are in the process of conquering the female customers,” jokes Haffmans. “It’s been a challenge, but we have started working with acetate where you can be more creative with the colour. The frames still feature the subtle Mykita branding with the signature screw hinge.”

What do they like about designing glasses? “Even though I have designed asymmetrical frames, I have a preference for symmetry,” replies Gottschling. “I am happy to live in this world of symmetrical shapes. I also enjoy applying and working with the design knowledge we have.”

Haffmans who actually wears glasses on a daily basis has a different take. “For me a pair of glasses is a piece of identity, a form of self expression,” he explains, pulling out different sample frames and modelling them. “You can have the mass-compatible product for everyday, our bread and butter ware. What’s fun is to work on the things that are different, more exclusive; frames for people who enjoy dressing up with glasses – a group of people I clearly belong to as well. There is nothing simpler than dressing up with a different pair of glasses and a wig. It’s fun.“

The team have many ideas to widen their product range, but admit that circumstances force them to stay on a straight course – particularly in light of the recent economic turmoil. “The recession is a great opportunity, a cleansing process that separates the wheat from the chaff, that will wash away things that no one really liked. All those stupid SUVs, those show-offs with lots of money – all gone, they haven’t got lots of money anymore,” says Haffmans and adds on a more serious note. “Well, we want to focus on selling glasses and doing that well – we have a large company with many employees – we can’t afford to get it wrong.”

The old predictable job interview question ‘Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?’ is greeted by a long pause. Gottschling tries to answer first: “We will continue to try and make great products and….” his voice trails off in thought. “Something will turn up,” throws Haffmans into the discussion.

Reassuringly, they are still thinking as the interview comes to an end. Looking around their office, scanning the various design inspirations of vintage 1950s and 1960s frames and other paraphernalia it is clear that Mykita will continue to stick to its mantra of great design.

‘Where do you see yourself in five years’ time…?’ Creativity has no timetable.

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